The Whigs were aligned with the religious Right of the day — the makers of that eruption of evangelical Protestantism, the Second Great Awakening — and styled themselves the defenders of middle-class morality. They were the “sober, industrious, thriving” people, in the words of one contemporary observer. Their cultural agenda could be patronizing and restrictive, and put too much faith in the ability of institutions to remake human nature. But at its bottom, Howe writes, the agenda featured “self-denial, self-help, self-control.”
The early Abraham Lincoln was a characteristic Whig in his beliefs, and in his personal story. Abstemious, honest, and devoted to orderliness and the law, he was determined to reach beyond his benighted upbringing on a subsistence farm. “The way for a young man to rise,” he maintained, “is to improve himself every way he can.” Lincoln’s Republicans shed the elitism and condescension of Whiggery and reconciled it with Jacksonian democracy. “They argued,” Howe writes, “that America ought to become a classless society, in which individual initiative and hard work received their just reward when the laborer became a capitalist in his own right.” Lincoln exemplified and promoted this ideal of social mobility.